'The Slow Professor'

New book argues that professors should actively resist the "culture of speed" in academe.

April 19, 2016

In 2013, the jobs website CareerCast named university professor the No. 1 least stressful job, unleashing a torrent of criticism that only grew after Forbes picked up the ranking. Professors -- those with tenure and without -- said the study ignored the changing dynamics of the university, namely the increasingly administrative nature of academic work, the emerging student-as-customer model, unrealistic research expectations and 24-7 contact with colleagues and students via email. Non-tenure-track professors also pointed out that they in many cases lack all job security.

CareerCast evidently learned something from the controversy -- its 2016 least stressful jobs list specifies tenured professor, at No. 3 -- but old notions about what it is to be a professor die hard. And the CareerCast study is just one example. From the running errands to social and family events, someone always seems to be wondering what it’s like to have summers off and “just think” for a living.

But while professors may be accustomed to nonacademics clinging to an outdated image of faculty life, the newest resistance to letting it go -- at least in part -- comes from within the academy. In a new book, two tenured professors propose applying the “slow movement” -- which has thus far been applied to everything from food to parenting to science to sex -- to academic work. And while it’s already raised some eyebrows as an example of “tenured privilege,” it’s at once an important addition and possible antidote to the growing literature on the corporatization of the university.

“While slowness has been celebrated in architecture, urban life and personal relations, it has not yet found its way into education,” reads Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (University of Toronto Press). “Yet, if there is one sector of society which should be cultivating deep thought, it is academic teachers. Corporatization has compromised academic life and sped up the clock. The administrative university is concerned above all with efficiency, resulting in a time crunch and making those of us subjected to it feel powerless.”

In a corporate university, argues Slow Professor, “power is transferred from faculty to managers, economic justifications dominate, and the familiar ‘bottom line’ eclipses pedagogical and intellectual concerns.” But slow professors nevertheless “advocate deliberation over acceleration” because they “need time to think, and so do our students. Time for reflection and open-ended inquiry is not a luxury but is crucial to what we do.”

Slow Professor was written by friends Maggie Berg, a professor of English at Queen’s University in Canada, and Barbara K. Seeber, a professor of English at Brock University, also in Canada. While both authors are Canadian, the situation they describe would make perfect sense to academics in the U.S. The authors' book grew out of regular confessional-style telephone conversations in which one would express guilt for not seeing a departmental email sent at 10:45 p.m. until the next morning, wanting to say no to judging essays for a competition with 10 days’ notice, or otherwise trying to achieve some sense of work-life -- or even work-work -- balance. And because academe prizes scholarly individualism and the life of the mind over physical or emotional concerns, they say, it wasn’t immediately apparent to them that others -- including their immediate colleagues -- might also be struggling with modern academe’s frantic pace.

Findings of the Canadian Association of University Professors’ first-ever national survey on occupational stress, in 2007, suggested they weren’t alone. More than one-fifth of respondents said they suffered physical and psychological problems related to stress, and a similar proportion reported using anxiety medication, for example.

“Reading the survey was like opening a window,” Berg and Seeber wrote. “We shifted our thinking from ‘what is wrong with us?’ to ‘what is wrong with the academic system?’”

Slow Professors’ quick answer to that last question is similar to many articulated in recent critiques of the so-called corporate university (think Benjamin Ginsburg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters or Larry C. Gerber’s The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance: Professionalization and the Modern American University): the shift away from tenure-track positions, a shift toward seeing the student as customer, and proliferating ranks of administrators. What makes Berg and Seeber’s argument unique, however, is that they reject the “crisis” language that dominates the many books that have come before. That’s because such language communicates a hopelessness they say they want to avoid and because, well, it’s too fast.

Instead, Slow Professor proposes with some optimism that professors -- especially those with tenure -- have the power to change the direction of the university by becoming the eye of the storm, working deliberately and thoughtfully in ways that somehow now seem taboo.

“Distractedness and fragmentation characterize contemporary academic life; we believe that slow ideals restore a sense of community and conviviality … which sustain political resistance,” Berg and Seeber say. “Slow professors act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience to the effects of the corporatization of higher education.”

Slow Professor is, by design, short on practical advice about just how to become the eye of that storm. But drawing on the language and literature of the slow movement, including Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed and Carlo Petrini’s Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean and Fair, the book discusses how the movement might extend to academe. A discussion of time management, for example, rejects most common advice -- such as detailed record keeping and scheduling -- as too celebratory of speed and creating a false sense of control over one’s time.

‘Keep Calm and Write On’

“We believe that the problems of time stress will not be solved with better work habits,” Slow Professor says, reminding its readers (namely professors and future professors) that they’ve managed to either complete or get into graduate school. “Time management does not take into full account the changes to the university system: rather, it focuses on the individual, often in a punitive manner (my habits need to be pushed into shape). The real time issues are the increasing workloads, the sped-up pace and the instrumentalism that pervades the corporate university.”

Instead, the discussion focuses on the links between time, commitments and personal stress, and emphasizes trying to achieve a sense of “flow” or “timelessness,” which presents as creativity (and productivity). How to get into the flow? Avoid or eliminate to the extent possible environmental factors that interfere with creativity, the book says. Protect “a time and a place for timeless time” and continually remind yourself “that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.”

Slow Professor proposes getting off-line as much as possible and doing less by thinking of scheduling as eliminating commitment’s from one’s day, not taking them on. Perhaps most importantly, it proposes leaving room in one’s schedule for regular “timeless time,” starting with some kind of relaxing, transitional ritual. Incorporate playfulness and shun those negative self-thoughts.

And don’t forget leaving time to do nothing at all, the book says.

In a separate discussion on “pedagogy and pleasure,” Slow Professor advocates for the in-person classroom model over online. It argues that teaching is an undeniably emotional activity for which one should be physically present, and that students also benefit from working face-to-face with their peers.

“It is neither frivolous nor incidental that to ensure that we enjoy ourselves in the classroom: it may be crucial to creating an environment in which students learn,” the book reads.

Slow Professor also addresses research pressures, saying that slow scholarship must stand against perverse incentives for publication or a rush to “findings” at the expense of scholarly value. Noting how one of the authors’ colleagues was once admiringly referred to as a “machine,” the book questions the very way in which academics talk about one another’s productivity, saying, “Slowing down is a matter of ethical import. To drive oneself as if one were a machine should be recognized as a form of self-harm. … Furthermore, being machine-like will hardly generate compassion for others.”

Overwork can make colleagues jealous, impatient and rushed, Slow Professor reads, while slowing down “is about allowing room for others and otherness. And in that sense, slowing down is an ethical choice.”

The book argues that waiting can be a good thing -- one of the authors once hurriedly submitted a manuscript before she was ready, only to have it rejected, for example (it was eventually accepted, after a break) -- and that more is not necessarily better when it comes to research. It notes that every professor has a “shadow CV” of detours, delays and abandoned projects, and argues that academics should be more open and less shameful about this side of their work. Slow Professor advocates walking to the library, saying that digitization has led to a decrease in the range of scholarly references, not a broadening, and that reading books and articles that aren’t immediately germane to the task at hand is actually a good thing.

“And as many say, keep calm and write on,” the book reads.

A final portion of the book is dedicated to slowing down to enjoy one’s colleagues. Corporatization of the university has led to an instrumental view of not only time and space, but also each other, Berg and Seeber say. Yet collaboration and even professional venting mark healthy workspaces, where the absence of it can lead to whining.

Still, the authors reject any formal accounting of collegiality, such as its consideration in tenure and promotion decisions. Instead, they propose creating mutually supportive “holding environments” among colleagues. Such spaces are based on the acknowledgment that “our work has a significant emotional dimension, whether it be disagreeing with a colleague in a meeting, or finding a student guilty of a departure from academic integrity,” they say. And while risking candor to establish such environments is challenging, Berg and Seeber admit, the reward is worth it.

Tenured Privilege?

Slow Professor was just released, but some advance publicity rubbed at least one academic the wrong way. Responding to an article about the book in the Canadian publication University Affairs, Andrew Robinson, a non-tenure-track professor of physics at Carleton University in Canada, wrote on his blog, “I have never seen such a grotesque example of tenured faculty privilege. Imagine, Canadian academics, some of the best-paid academics in the entire [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] are deciding that they want to slow things down and take it a bit easier. Because they are overworked. Poor darlings. Let’s hope we don’t see the ‘Slow Nurse’ or ‘Slow Doctor’ movements picking up amongst the professions. Why should academia bathe in this self-indulgence?”

As a non-tenure-track faculty member, Robinson wrote, “I don’t have this luxury. My pay is so bad that I have to take as much work as possible, to maintain even a modest standard of living. I’m not part of the Canadian middle class, by any measure of income. Tenured faculty earn at least three times what I do. So my sympathy for them, as you might imagine, is extremely limited.”

Seeber declined an interview or to answer questions via email, saying, “Because the book has just come out, we want to give people time to read it in order to avoid misunderstandings or oversimplifications. We also worked hard to avoid prescriptive advice, and to be as clear and concise as possible in the book itself.”

Slow Professor does address potential criticism, saying that even some of the authors’ colleagues have questioned their desire to write a book challenging the culture of academe.

“While we acknowledge the systemic inequities in the university, a slow approach is potentially relevant across the spectrum of academic positions,” Berg and Seeber wrote. “Those of us in tenured positions, given the protection that we enjoy, have an obligation to try to improve in our own ways the working climate for all of us.”

Ideally, Berg and Seeber say, “This book will serve as an intervention. … The language of crisis dominates the literature on the corporate university, urging us to act before it is too late. We are more optimistic, believing that the resistance is alive and well. … By taking time of reflection and dialogue, the slow professor takes back the intellectual life of the university.”

John Ziker, chair of anthropology at Boise State University, runs a faculty time allocation study on his campus that found participants work 61 hours per week and spend 17 percent of their workweek in meetings. Though he hasn't read Slow Professor, he said the "frantic pace" it describes "is a reality indeed." Still, Ziker said he thought the success of any slow professor movement "would be very contextual," meaning the "individual goals, disciplinary traditions and the particular university culture -- even political climate of the state -- might have an impact."


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